Language Law vs. Ukraine’s Constitution


On 31 July Ukraine’s Parliamentary Speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn changed his stand, taken only 3 weeks earlier, and signed the highly contentious Kivalov-Kolesnichenko language bill which under the guise of protecting “regional languages” significantly increases the role of the Russian language.  The concerns from civic and religious organizations about this law are well-summarized in a statement from the Association of Jewish Organizations and Communities of Ukraine [VAAD]: “The draft law poses a threat to Ukrainian society since it disregards the State status of the Ukrainian language, does not protect minority languages at risk and arouses dissent and tension in Ukrainian society”.

What Lytvyn’s motives are can only be guessed since on 4 July, following a blitzkrieg and highly irregular “vote” in parliament during his absence, he handed in his resignation.  Certainly one of the reasons for parliament being recalled on Monday was the issue of Lytvyn’s post as Speaker. This followed truly record-breaking speed from MPs from the ruling majority who on 9 July submitted a constitutional submission and from the Constitutional Court which by 11 July had produced a judgment making it considerably easier to replace Lytvyn with a more cooperative Speaker.  

There is now only one step remaining –  the President’s signature.  Viktor Yanukovych has on many occasions promised to make Russian a second State language and at first glance it seems most improbable that he will use his power of veto. 

On the other hand, the civic partnership New Citizen has received a categorical response from Marina Stavniychuk, Adviser to the President on Constitutional Modernization. She states in her letter that the draft law was adopted on 3 July 2012 with serious infringements of the Verkhovna Rada Regulations, and that a considerable number of the provisions do not comply with Ukraine’s Constitution and international documents including the European Charter of Regional and Minority Languages, as well as a Constitutional Court Judgment from 14 December 1999.

The situation has now gone far beyond the standard pre-election hyping of the “language issue” which in all public opinion polls is actually given a very low place in people’s list of concerns.  The stakes are high both because of the divisive nature of the law, and due to the flagrant violations of legislative procedure and economy with the truth regarding the law itself, as well as democratic principles of public consultation.

            The bill’s authors – Party of the Regions MPs Vadim Kolesnichenko and Serhiy Kivalov, as well as their party colleagues, continue to assert that the law is in keeping with the European Charter on Regional and Minority Languages and has received a favourable Council of Europe’s Venice Commission assessment.  The latter’s criticism of the bill is admittedly only in English but it is likely the authors are aware of its actual substance and simply assume that the public are not.  Nor does public clarification help as we saw last week when Knut Vollebaek, the OSCE High Commissioner on National Minorities followed up a visit to Ukraine with a public statement calling the situation around the new language law “deeply divisive” and urging the authorities to engage in dialogue.

            Kolesnichenko’s response cannot be considered either adequate or helpful given that Ukraine is scheduled to hold chairmanship of OSCE in 2013.  Mr Vollebaek’s comments, according to Kolesnichenko, show the desire of European politicians to destabilize the situation in Ukraine, while the comment that “all countries in which Vollebaek worked as a diplomat have faced inter-ethnic conflicts” is not only offensive, but seriously off-track.  As is his claim that Mr Vollebaek’s position clashes with the supposedly “positive assessment” from the Venice Commission.

            The Party of the Regions which is pushing this bill is not only distorting the position taken by European bodies.  The same criticism has been made by all profile institutions of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences, the Verkhovna Rada’s Legal Department; the Finance and Justice Ministries, the Parliamentary Committee on Culture and Spiritual Matters; the Congress of National Communities; the All-Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations and a huge number of civic organizations. 

            The technique is brutally simple: ignore all well-argued objections and just ladle on the distortions and the emotional rhetoric.  The latter will be remembered especially given the pro-government slant of most media coverage.

            It is perhaps unfortunate that a majority of the population (65.1%, according to a survey by the authoritative Razumkov Centre) see this bill as election campaigning, while nobody is in any doubt that its aim is not to protect genuinely under-supported regional languages in Ukraine, but to allow Ukrainian to be effectively ignored in most parts of the country.  Such cynical realism means that the financial consequences, already highlighted by the Finance Ministry, were the law to really fulfil its declared aim, could either be crippling or lead to the courts being inundated with civil suits by members of minorities whose rights, now supposedly enshrined in law, continued to be flouted.

            Brawls, “adoption” of laws with most “votes” being cast in the MPs’ absence (in clear breach of Article 84 of the Constitution) and other irregularities are also standard in Ukraine although the sheer audacity of the breaches in this case is breathtaking. 

            There had already been a number of infringements to procedure during the first reading on 5 June with such a controversial bill being voted on without discussion and with a large number of MPs absent.  The requisite month had not elapsed, nor had many amendments been discussed and added when, in the absence of Verkhovna Rada Speaker Volodymyr Lytvyn and the Deputy Speaker from the opposition, the other Deputy Speaker Martynyuk basically bulldozed a “vote” through in record time. 

            The very many warnings about the deeply divisive nature of this law deserve the President’s attention, as do the shocking irregularities in the way the draft bill has been pushed through.  In the face of clear public concern and infringements of the Constitution, President Yanukovych’s signature would deliver a grave blow to Ukraine’s already beleaguered democracy.  

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